IntelBrief: Has the Arab Spring Finally Reached Algeria?
April 5, 2019

Has the Arab Spring Finally Reached Algeria?

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Bottom Line Up Front

• On 2 April 2019, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his immediate resignation, ending his nearly 20-year rule.

• For decades, real power in Algeria has been concentrated among a tight-knit clique of business leaders, military officers, and politicians tied to Bouteflika.

• Widespread, sustained street protests succeeded in Bouteflika’s resignation, but the protesters want more and are pushing for tangible reforms.

• It is unclear how the U.S. and other countries will approach this transition, either by trying to become more heavily involved diplomatically or by allowing the political process to play out on its own.

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The peaceful protests in Algeria accomplished their primary objective on April 02, when ‘president-for-life’ Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his immediate resignation from office. Bouteflika has been fundamentally unfit for office for years, suffering from a stroke and ill health and rarely appearing in public. Since February, protesters nationwide have demanded an end to his almost twenty-year presidency. In an attempt to placate protestors, Bouteflika announced on April 1 that he would resign sometime before April 28. That last effort to cling to power ended when the army chief of staff, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, pushed for an immediate declaration that the president was unfit for office. The army has often sided with the protesters, even as the military itself remains one of the main obstacles to real change in Algeria. 

For decades, real power in Algeria—economic, social, legal, and political—has been closely guarded by a clique of business leaders, military officers, veterans of the Algerian war for independence, and politicians from the dominant National Liberation Front (FLN) party. This network is known as ‘le pouvoir’ (the power). Long before Bouteflika took office in 1999, le pouvoir was in control of the levers of power in Algeria. Blessed by vast energy resources, including oil and natural gas, Algeria has generally maintained cordial relations with the West, partnering with the U.S. and its allies on regional security efforts, especially counterterrorism. In the wake of the tumult caused by the Arab Spring, Washington and capitols throughout Europe praised the stability of the Algerian government, particularly in contrast to the chaos engulfing neighboring Libya after the NATO intervention in 2011. Still, that stability came with a price of oppression and corruption that crippled the opportunities of generations of young Algerians.

The end of Bouteflika’s reign in office will not signal the end of le pouvoir. Behind the scenes, those who comprise the deeply entrenched patronage system are hoping that the fall of the president—the main symbol of the corrupt system—will substitute in some way for tangible policy reform. Algerians now find themselves where their neighbors were nearly eight years ago, when Arab Spring protests in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt swept through the region. The ‘caretaker’ government in line to take over remains unpopular with the masses; Bouteflika handpicked his own replacement, Noureddine Bedoui, who is a member of the long-time leader’s inner circle and would help perpetuate the interests of the ruling elite. The ruling clique of le pouvoir will need to grapple with demographic realities: most of the politically influential cadre surrounding Bouteflika is older, in stark contrast to Algeria’s young population. The generational gap has revealed a widening gap between expectations and the political future of Algeria’s youth. 

Given its propensity to favor stability over the uncertainties that accompany political transition, the question remains if the U.S. and other countries will back Algeria’s old guard or push for democratic elections. The case of Egypt remains instructive. Following elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi to power, the U.S. quietly accepted a military coup led by Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah Sisi. Another major factor shaping Algeria’s future is the role of oil and natural gas — and the extent to which vested interests favor continuity and stability with respect to the economy. The revolution has continued unabated and unlike the Arab Spring protests that toppled other governments in North Africa, to date no lives have been lost in Algeria’s protests. But even after Algeria’s constitutional council ratified Bouteflika’s resignation, there is still a palpable sense of anxiety among the population. Citizens are left to wonder whether regime loyalists will ultimately relinquish control or seek to close ranks and consolidate power while elites negotiate amongst each other over which successor will best safeguard their political and economic interests.

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